The following remarks were delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis on June 15 at the annual lunch of Cal-Pac Renewal, the evangelical renewal caucus within the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.
In the words of Article XI of the EUB Confession of Faith, “Entire sanctification” – another way of saying Christian perfection – “is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.”
Romans 6:14 – “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”
Near the end of his life, Wesley said that this doctrine – that all believers should desire the very real possibility of God so filling us with love for Him and our neighbors that we are no longer committing sin in thought, word, or deed – was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”
Like many here, I never heard about this in a sermon or in Sunday school. In all honesty, I initially recoiled from this landmark Methodist doctrine when I first learned of it.
But after a very long, arduous process of study and reflection which I do not have time to explain in detail, I came to appreciate Wesley’s very important nuancing qualifiers to this doctrine, and also to be compelled by his biblical, moral, and logical arguments that, in the words of Wesley scholar Billy Abraham, Christians need not be doomed “to live morally defeated lives.” There are all kinds of dangerous pitfalls to avoid with Christian perfection, but that is no excuse for refusing to pursue the holiness to which God calls His adopted children.
One of the greatest weaknesses in much American evangelicalism is the tendency to let the good focus on getting people saved make us lax in promoting sanctification. New converts without a firm grounding as mature disciples often find themselves ill-equipped to withstand the assaults of the world and the devil, let alone to raise Christian children in a hostile world.
But in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus said to “go and make disciples of all nations” with the word “disciples” suggesting much deeper, ongoing commitment than the one-time-event suggestions of the word “converts.” Jesus went on, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – which our theology understands as both imparting divine grace and uniting the baptizee with a body of other disciples. Jesus concluded that sentence: “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
If we are to once again become a vibrant, truly Methodist, missional movement, we need to all study what the Scriptures teach about fully obeying God, read about the lives self-sacrificially committed Christians, and reclaim our Wesleyan ethos of social holiness.
One of the most glaring misrepresentations of John Wesley is when people selectively quote his phrase, “no holiness but social holiness” to defend devoting church resources to strident, divisive, and partisan political activism.
In context, what Wesley said in his 1739 preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems was “‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”
In other words, what Wesley was talking about was discipleship in the context of loving community with other believers, especially within the intimate, accountability-focused small-group classes and bands which were the building blocks of early Methodism.
If we really want to help ourselves and our brothers and sisters know the joys of the deeper relationship God wants with them, and if we want realistic contexts for living out the “one another” commands of the New Testament, then let’s start new, single-gender, accountability- and encouragement-centered small groups in which members get into the word, confidentially share their moral struggles, and help redirect each other towards holiness.
Scott Kisker at Wesley Seminary and the aforementioned Kevin Watson are two United Methodist seminary professors who have written some good stuff about practical ways in which such reclamation of Wesleyan spirituality can be done. Or you may check out the “Covenant Discipleship” section of the General Board of Discipleship website, www.gbod.org
I believe that such depth of fellowship with God and with a few close, trusted Christian friends is something for which many people are starving. And how many of the sorts of high-profile scandals and everyday hypocrisies of believers which turn people off from Christianity may have been averted if the Christians being bad witnesses had been in such a holiness-promoting class or band?
In recent high-profile cases of United Methodist clergy and occasionally laity being formally called to abide by some basic moral standards, the horrified shock and outrage we see some express stems from the fact that for over a century, our denomination has allowed regular practices of communal accountability to become alien concepts.
Missional United Methodism for the 21st Century – In Conclusion
We have a daunting mission ahead of us. We face all sorts of pressures from inside and outside the church. On our own, we simply can’t do it.
But thanks be to God, we are not alone!
We serve an awesome, all-powerful triune God Who can raise the dead to life, and Who can bring revival, reform, and redirection to our beloved United Methodist Church.
Let’s go forth to draw closer to Him in prayer, fasting, and repentance! Let’s devote ourselves to the kingdom work of reforming our denomination and reaching the lost within and beyond our churches, grounded in Scripture, emphasizing the cross of Christ, oriented for conversions, active in our communities, and seeking holiness in accountable community!
- Part 1: The Missional Landscape
- Part 2: Scripture
- Part 3: The Cross of Christ
- Part 4: Personal Conversion
- Part 5: Active Faith
- Part 6: Christian Perfection
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